If you seek a break from fiction, these three new memoirs are well worth reading.
“My mother spent the last six months of her life homeless, sleeping in a park in Lake Worth, Florida. We had not spoken to each other at all in that time.” So begins Danielle Geller’s heart-rending debut memoir, “Dog Flowers” (One World, $27), which details a fractured family shot through with addiction and abuse.
In the opening chapter, Geller visits her mother on her deathbed in a Florida hospital and returns to Boston with several suitcases of her mother’s belongings. Educated as an archivist, Geller sets about organizing her mother’s meager belongings in chronological order, including handwritten letters, photos captioned in cursive and smudged documents on state agency letterhead. These materials are reproduced in black-and-white images throughout the memoir, which give it an archival, almost investigative, texture. Of course, these treasured scraps are incomplete and could never provide a full portrait of her mother, but, surprisingly, Geller does not even attempt to construct one. Instead, her mother in death remains much as she was in life: absent and inaccessible. “I am not trying to learn how to grieve my mother,” Geller writes, “I have been grieving her absence my entire life. I am ghost-sick. Possessed.”
The resulting book reads more like a personal diary where Geller’s mother occasionally makes an appearance, but is more frequently populated by other family members, like her alcoholic father and her younger sister, who, on paper, looks like a troubled youth, has a history of drug abuse, and, at the moment of her mother’s death, is hitchhiking her way around Montana with a crusty pup. Her father, however, is the one who occupies most of her thoughts and energy, in part because he is so emotionally manipulative. “The love of an addict is a trap,” she concludes with hardened sorrow.
This memoir requires some emotional fortitude to trudge through, let alone live through. The everyday minutiae of surviving an abusive home and chaotic childhood can read like a litany of misfortunes. While taxing emotionally, this approach also drags the narrative, which could have benefited from greater introspection by selecting key biographical episodes that are instructive in some way, rather than an ongoing matter-of-fact catalog of everyday tragedies. But maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe the only order Geller could hope to impose on her chaotic life was that of chronology. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to look for something deeper, but I don’t think so.
When so much of contemporary nonfiction leans heavily on identity as a central theme and organizing principle, Geller’s resistance to such tropes is a welcome reprieve, but there is one episode toward the end which offers a powerful metaphor. Geller, who grew up largely removed from her Navajo culture and family, joins a weaving class populated and led by white women. “Weaving a Navajo rug requires mastery over the tension of your wool,” she explains before revealing that she tends to weave her threads too tightly. The act of weaving is an apt metaphor for the act of writing, but the purpose of this scene seems to point out the disjunction between her approach to writing and weaving — namely, she largely abstains from “weaving” together connections. Instead, the narrative threads of her life remain loose and, crucially, unfinished.
Two other new memoirs are also worth your time.
When I think of the mob, I think of New York’s Five Families or Al Capone’s arrest in Chicago — not small towns across America. But even there, in the most inconspicuous corners of the American heartland, the mob had tentacles. In “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob” (W.W. Norton, $26.95), historian Russell Shorto takes a hard look at his own grandfather’s involvement with the mob in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where he built a local gambling empire. As he tries to piece together his family’s unspoken history, Shorto exposes an intricate network of small town mob activity in brawny postwar America and rekindles a relationship with his ailing father.
In “Love Is an Ex-Country” (Catapult, $26), Randa Jarrar embarks on a road trip from her home in California to visit her parents’ place in Connecticut, partially inspired by an Egyptian belly dancer’s cross-country journey across the United States in the 1940s. Jarrar, a single mother who was born in America but raised in Egypt for a spell, brings a fresh, critical perspective to the road narrative genre, which is largely dominated by white men. In the backyard of America, the proudly fat, queer, Muslim and Arab American protagonist dredges up personal demons she triumphed over, and unaired grievances from America’s checkered past.